Most of us have read Homer’s epic tale, whether in high school (as I just did) or in college literature classes. Even though most don’t realize it, there is really great stuff in this tale, written somewhere around 700 B.C. It’s mesmerizing and unforgettable. Once you begin to turn the pages you will be swept up in this fantasy, full of mythical creatures and exciting characters with real-life emotions.
Don’t let the term “epic poem” throw you; that just means this story comes out of an oral tradition. The story is divided into 24 books (sounds like a lot, but it’s like individual chapters). Robert Fitzgerald’s excellent translation makes reading this a pleasure. The epic hero of this story is Odysseus, king of Ithaca. He’s the kind of man legends are built upon: he is a great warrior and seaman; good with his hands, he is praised as the best carpenter around; wonderful provider, he is the best marksman and hunter of boar among all his fellows, and, a favorite with women both mortal and immortal, suggesting that, well, he was rather handsome and pleasing to the eye.
He does have his share of bad luck, however.
The Odyssey begins ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War (the Iliad), and Odysseus has still not returned home from the war. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, is about 20 years old and is sharing his absent father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother, Penelope, and a crowd of 108 boisterous and rude young men, “the Suitors”, who are practically eating the queen and her son out of house and home – not to mention irritating the poor women to death trying to pressure her into marriage. Telemachus must become a man quickly, for the suitors want him dead and out of the way. Athena intervenes, sending the young man on a trip and allowing time and travel to season him so that upon Odysseus’s return, the king will have a strong right arm in his son.
Then, Homer takes the reader to the realm of the gods, and we find out the backstory of Odysseus and Poseidon. Athena, who is always in Odysseus’ corner, persuades, Zeus that it’s time for our hero to free of the beautiful nymph, Calypso, who has held him prisoner for seven years. Poseidon objects, for he bears a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son, Polyphemus. Things are hashed out between Polyphemus and Calypso, and Calypso is given notice that her ‘pet’ prisoner must be loosed.
The wanderings of Odysseus are recorded next. The wayfaring king meets yet more cannibals who sink all of the companion ships with him. The lone ship reaches the isle of the lovely enchantress Circre, who may have well coined the notion that men are pigs. She doesn’t concern herself with the notion of hospitality either, at least not for the king’s men; they are turned into porkers while Odysseus becomes her lover for a year. The action continues as the weary king struggles homeward. He meets a six-headed monster, visits with his dead mother and a blind seer, and tears out his hair in frustration when his men eat the sacred cattle of the sun god.
And then, a bit of a break. Our faith in hospitality is restored in books 13-24. Odysseus is sent on his way by a group of people famous for sending wayfaring people to Ithaca and ultimately conquers all the problems at home with the help of loyal servants, his son, and of course, the ever-watchful Athena.
This is wonderful reading, possibly more exciting than any tale George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg has taken to the big screen. I hope the world still treats it with the excitement and dynamism it deserves.
p.s. A hilarious parody of this tale brought to the screen is called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a clever comedy/adventure for those who grew up in or are familiar with the southern US.